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One Store’s Decision to Leave San Francisco Over Crime

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 10/25/2022 Caroline Mimbs Nyce
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Hayes Valley is an aspirational neighborhood located in central San Francisco, the main strip of which is lined with trendy stores and restaurants. It’s also a neighborhood where, according to Davis Smith, the CEO of the outdoor-gear brand Cotopaxi, retailers have begun to lock their doors during the day for fear of being robbed in broad daylight.

Last week, Smith announced that he would be temporarily closing his company’s flagship outpost on Hayes Street, which he says has been robbed dozens of times since its opening just a year ago. In a LinkedIn post talking about the decision, Smith called San Francisco “a city of chaos.” “Many streets and parks are overrun with drugs, criminals, and homelessness, and local leadership and law enforcement enable it through inaction,” he wrote.

[Nellie Bowles: How San Francisco became a failed city]

Smith is not the first, or the only, person to raise concerns about the city’s crime rate: Earlier this summer, San Francisco voters recalled their progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, in large part over concerns about a crime wave. As my colleague Annie Lowrey reported, even amid the political fallout, the question of whether there is a crime wave at all was in fact unanswered: The available data are murky, lagging, and hard to interpret.

In a statement, the San Francisco Police Department said it was “aware of the recent incidents that have occurred on the 500 block of Hayes Street” and that its burglary unit is actively investigating. The department also encouraged victims to file police reports. “Reports also provide data which allows us to understand when, where, and to what degree retail thefts are occurring. With this data we can identify crime hotspots,” the statement reads. The department did not respond to follow-up requests for comment by the time of publication.

“I’m not an expert in crime,” Smith told me in a phone call last week. “I’m not a politician. I’m not involved in policy. What I care about is changing capitalism—using capitalism to do good in the world.” Smith and I discussed his decision to close the store, what role business leaders should play in a city’s criminal-justice policies, and the trickiness of having the ear of city hall in a place where you don’t actually reside.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Caroline Mimbs Nyce: For starters, tell me how this decision came about.

Davis Smith: First of all, we love the city of San Francisco. It was one of the first places where we started building our brand. We had—and have—a lot of great supporters of our brand, people that believe in our mission and our purpose. And so we were so excited to get a store there, especially on Hayes Street, which is such a great, charming little place to have a store.

We opened the store, and within a few days the front window was smashed in, and they looted the store. That was really disappointing. We replaced the window, and it was immediately smashed in again and the store was looted again.

Nyce: Had you even trained the staff at that point?

Smith: The staff were in the middle of, like, learning how to run the store. And they’re having to deal with this. It happened four times. We boarded up the windows, and people graffitied the boards. We ended up putting some vinyl signage of our brand over the boards, so it looked better. We eventually were able to get some metal gates that were installed so that we could protect the store when we were closed. And we thought, Okay, that’s going to solve the problem.

Unfortunately, what we saw was that then basically organized theft rings would just walk into the store and grab thousands and thousands of dollars worth of product and walk out of the store. Our staff is trained to not confront people. It’s not worth risking someone’s safety over a backpack or a jacket.

Eventually, it happened so many times—I mean, dozens of times—that we decided that we needed to figure out a solution. A bunch of our neighbors had started locking their doors even during day hours. Customers would have to knock on the door, and then you’d come unlock it. We decided that is not ideal, but that it might be the best solution to avoid this kind of thing from happening.

These groups, they know how to work around us. They would send a woman who would pose as the customer at the front door, and we’d go unlock it. And as soon as we do, they rush in from the sides, push the door open, and rob us again. And so at some point, it was less about the product being stolen and more about our team. They’re terrified. It’s so intimidating and scary, and I would be scared too. And so this happened two or three days ago now. And when I heard about it, I made the decision to close the store. It’s not worth putting people at risk and having our team feel this way.

We’re trying to explore solutions. How do we create a safe environment? Is there a way to do it? We struggled for a year to get the attention of the city or the police department. No one seemed to even care. I suspect that they do care; it’s, honestly, probably just overwhelming for them. It’s so rampant at this point.

Nyce: Do you think you were being systematically targeted? Have you heard of this happening to other Hayes Valley stores?

Smith: I wondered the same thing. It’s not just us. A bunch of our neighboring retailers have experienced the exact same thing. Obviously, some retailers might be more immune to it. For example, if you’re Warby Parker, and you’re selling eyewear, there’s not a whole lot of value in going in and snatching a bunch of eyewear that doesn’t even have prescription lenses in it, right? So a company like that might be more immune than a company like ours, where we have a $250 down jacket and you can go grab 20 of them really easily.

Nyce: How much merchandise did you all end up having stolen?

Smith: I don’t know the exact number off the top of my head. I can tell you that the theft has happened dozens and dozens and dozens of times. We’ve been open for a year, and, I mean, this is, like, multiple times a week.

Nyce: Is that all mass-grabbing of merchandise?

Smith: Yeah, it’s not shoplifting. Shoplifting would be different.

Nyce: It’s happening dozens of times?

Smith: Oh, yeah. We’ve lost track, but it’s multiple times a week for a year. You just do the math and it’s like, I don’t know, 50 times, 100 times.

Nyce: What was the police’s role in all of this?

Smith: Well, we’ve struggled to get the attention of the police, and they just seem to not have a lot of interest in solving the problem. To be fair, they have a hard job. And I don’t know all the complexities as to why this is such a big problem that doesn’t seem to get resolved.

I do know that a month or so ago they announced that they were going to be doing fewer street patrols and have a smaller presence on Hayes Street, which just was shocking because the amount of crime that was happening was just mind-blowing and all the retailers were kind of up in arms, saying, “Hey, we need help.” And just nothing would change. That said, this week, we’re having some meaningful conversations, but I think what we need is not so much conversations. We just need action.

Nyce: What kind of action?

Smith: Yeah. The thing is, I don’t think police solve this problem. We need a holistic approach that comes from an entire community committing to change. And I think it’s businesses coming together, citizens coming together, people that legislate and prosecute, and police—everyone coming together, saying, “Okay, what do we need to do differently?” Because what we’re doing right now isn’t working. And I’m not an expert in this, so I don’t even know what the answer is. I know it’s really complex. It’s more complex than I even realized.

Nyce: Have you been going to San Francisco much in the pandemic?

Smith: I haven’t gone much during the pandemic. I went in 2020 with my wife, and we had an incident. You can’t be in San Francisco and not have an incident with people that are either homeless or drugged-out. Look, I have a lot of empathy. I really do. And I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I understand there’s so many complex situations in people’s lives that drive people to these kinds of situations. But it is scary. My wife had a homeless person run up to her and scream in her face. She’s never experienced anything like that. She was terrified. And she was just like, I don’t want to come back to San Francisco.

I did go once to see the store. It’s a beautiful store. It’s got some really unique things.

Nyce: But you don’t think that you’re going to be able to continue operating it?

Smith: I mean, that’s the question. I will admit: Earlier this week, I was kind of like, I don’t see any way for us to keep this open. But over the last week, we’ve gotten so much attention. This has gotten the attention of the City of San Francisco. I have a call later today with a city leader who is hopefully going to help us discuss how we can make some improvements. And the police department is talking to our team about some changes that might be able to happen. So we’re feeling optimistic.

But we will not open the store unless there’s change, because I know the same thing will happen over and over again if there’s not some kind of meaningful change.

[Read: What’s really going on with the crime rate]

Nyce: Why did you decide to post on LinkedIn about this? You could’ve just closed the store and quietly retreated.

Smith: There are a couple of reasons. I will say it’s uncomfortable for me. People love to criticize, and it’s not fun to have that experience. At the same time, I feel like business leaders have a responsibility to not just celebrate their wins but to talk about disappointments, discouraging moments, things that didn’t go well. And I thought, this is one of those times. Our brand is really built around authenticity.

In hindsight, we should have been more aware. There’s no way that the crime started when we opened our store doors. It must have been happening before. And we were caught off guard. We’re opening 10 more stores next year. This is impacting how we’re thinking about new stores. It’s like, Okay, are we sure that it’s a safe neighborhood where our team is going to be safe, where they can operate without being at risk?

So that was the first reason I posted. The second reason is I thought, If there’s a chance of keeping the store open, the only way it is going to happen is if we can create change. And sometimes the only way to create change is to vocalize publicly what’s going wrong.

In the 1970s, it might be going out in the streets and protesting with signs in front of city hall. And today that can happen by posting something on social media where everyone can see it and can chime in and voice that, yes, this is not a unique situation. And so we essentially mobilized tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of people that are saying the same thing—that are saying, “Yes, this is true. We also have experienced this. We need change.” And it got the attention of people that can help hopefully effect change.

Nyce: Tell me a little bit about what the reaction to your post was like.

Smith: Well, it was immediate. It’s been mixed. I will say I wrote it in the emotion of the moment. Our employees are at risk of losing their jobs; we’re closing the store; we’ve had employees that haven’t been safe. I think you can see that in my post. If I were to write it today, a few days later, maybe I would’ve used some softer words, in some ways. But at the same time, everything in there is 100 percent accurate.

And I never intended for this to be politicized. And I think it has been politicized, unfortunately, where people look at it and say, Okay, this is an opportunity to go to slam whatever policies, or bring up one party or another party. I have no interest in having that as part of our discussion.

Nyce: Your goal was to get the attention of leadership to get your store open.

Smith: Exactly. I don’t care about the politics. All I care about is like, let’s just make change. We can do this. And frankly, the way that we make change is by working together, the left and the right. We don’t do it by pointing fingers at each other and vilifying the other side. I really strongly disagree with that approach. And so my hope is that we could just come together from all sides and say, “Hey, no matter our politics, no matter what we believe, we can do better here. And if we work together, we can solve this.” But it doesn’t help to vilify the other side. It doesn’t solve the problem.

Nyce: Do you feel weird at all that your post has gone viral as a symbol of the crime epidemic in this city that you don’t live in?

Smith: Our brand is not about fighting crime. And some of the posts are saying things like, “Well, why don’t you solve the problem?” We can’t do everything. The first five years of the business, we donated more money than we even made in profits. This has been at the very heart of our brand. It’s my life’s work. My deepest passion is eradicating poverty. That’s what I care about.

I’m not an expert on crime. I don’t know how to solve it. All I know is that this is scary for our team. It’s unsafe. And it’s really tragic, given how wonderful the city is. And it makes me sad when I go visit my family there.

Nyce: Do you worry at all that you could end up influencing policy in San Francisco on a much broader scale than you had intended to? Crime is such a complex issue.

Smith: I’m not sure. I guess I’m not sure exactly where you’re heading with that.

Nyce: It sounds like you’ve had phone calls from San Francisco politicians and city leaders. Do you worry at all that you could inadvertently be pulling levers with city hall that could change the way crime policy is implemented in San Francisco?

Smith: I guess I don’t have a strong opinion about crime policy. All I know is whatever is in place now isn’t working. So I guess my thought is like, I can’t see us making it worse. It feels broken.

The one concern I have—and I’ve talked about this with my team—is, let’s say we solve this problem on Hayes. And it’s not just us. There are dozens and dozens of other retailers that are pleading for help, and that have even come to us this week and said, “Thank you for vocalizing this, because finally, after years, we’re getting some attention that maybe we can resolve this.” And it’s not just businesses. These are real people. These are lives, these are jobs that are at stake. During the pandemic, they lost like a third of all businesses on Hayes Street. And so they started getting some revitalization. New retailers, new brands like ours, are coming in. Everyone is feeling really hopeful. And then these crime waves start coming in.

And so it’s been really discouraging for all these people and the livelihoods of small-business owners and others that are on the street. And so my hope is, yes, I hope that Hayes Street becomes a safe place for people, not just our employees, but for people that want to shop or people that want to go out and walk down the street without fear. That would be great. At the same time, San Francisco’s a lot bigger than Hayes Street. Is it bad if we fix one part of the city, and there are problems elsewhere? I don’t know. Hopefully this can be a model for how it could be done better in other parts.

I don’t know. Again, I’m not an expert in crime. I’m not a politician. I’m not involved in policy. What I care about is changing capitalism—using capitalism to do good in the world.

Nyce: That’s a big goal.

Smith: And it’s possible. We can change capitalism. And I’m the biggest believer that we have to transform it, because we are destroying the planet. And we’re leaving people behind. Business leaders for too long have just said, “That’s the government’s job.” And I totally disagree. And that’s part of what I think this discussion is about: How do business leaders step up and play a role in doing good in communities and making change for the better?

And frankly, this is a learning experience for me. I’ve never done anything like this. This is really uncomfortable for me. But at the same time, I’m willing to go out of my comfort zone and try to do something if it can make something a little bit better, not just for us, but for others. So I’m learning.

There are probably things that we could have done better, or my post could have been more eloquent. I don’t know exactly, but I’m certainly interested in learning how this goes. And I’m looking forward to continuing to use our resources and our voice as a brand to make a difference.

Nyce: What have some of those criticisms been?

Smith: I mean, everything from, “He probably voted for the Democrat politicians, and so he deserves this.” And it’s like, Who cares? What if I did? What if I didn’t? How do you even know how I voted? Or just the criticisms of, like, “Why aren’t they out solving the homeless situation instead of closing their store?” These people don’t even understand who we are and what we’re committed to as a brand. Online, people just love to troll and to criticize. Most of the people that are criticizing, they’re doing nothing themselves.

Nyce: The topic of police reform has been really present in American politics over the past few years. Has anyone raised concerns about working with the police to increase patrols on Hayes Street?

Smith: I mean, I guess I don’t have an opinion on the police. I guess I don’t want to get into that. I don’t know that that’s something that I know enough about or have a strong enough opinion about to know the right or wrong thing. I believe in laws. And I grew up in Latin America—spent a huge chunk of my life, adult and childhood, in Latin America. I’ve seen what it’s like to live in a place where laws aren’t enforced. And it’s not good.

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